WDC55: Western Regional Mental Health Network

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Inactive/Terminating

WDC55: Western Regional Mental Health Network

Duration: 10/01/2021 to 09/30/2023

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

An analysis of existing data in the area of health and nutrition clearly indicated a high need in the Western Region states (data is lacking from the territories) in relation to mental health. For example, the prevalence of depression among adolescents (ages 12-17) and adults is higher in several Western Region states than nationally (Mental Health America, 2021). More specifically,  

  • 11 states in the Western Region have a higher prevalence of adults with mental illness than nationally,

  • 10 states in the Western Region have a higher prevalence of adolescents with a major depressive episode in the past 12 months than nationally,

  • Five of the top ten states with the highest prevalence of adults with mental illness are in the Western Region, and

  • Six of the top ten states with the highest prevalence of adolescents with a major depressive episode in the past 12 months are in the Western Region.

COVID-19 has only intensified the mental health crisis in the United States. For example, a recent Harris Poll indicated that 7 out of 10 teens are experiencing struggles with mental health (National 4-H Council, 2020).

Treatment of mental health symptomology and disorder is most often addressed through pharmaceutical or clinical/therapeutic approaches (e.g., Maternal and Child Health Bureau, 2020). However, emerging research indicates that information, education and support for dietary improvement should be offered as part of an integrated treatment package for those with mental health problems (e.g., Opie et al., 2017) and; therefore, in preventative work.

This is supported by a nascent, but growing, body of research linking food access, diet quality and mental health (e.g., Burke et al., 2016; Jacka et al., 2010; Melchoir et al., 2009, 2012; Whitaker et al., 2006). Further, emerging evidence from randomized controlled trials shows significant improvements in diet quality are associated with improvements in depressive symptoms (e.g., Firth et al., 2019; Opie et al., 2017). Two bodies of literature on this topic are emerging – one that points to physiological factors and molecular mechanisms accounting for the relationship (e.g., Opie et al., 2017 and Godos et al., 2020) and the other citing psychosocial factors at play, such as stress, anxiety and shame (e.g., Burke et al., 2016).

In a survey administered to Family and Consumer Science Program Leaders:

  • 63% indicated that their state is interested in addressing mental health, 37% said maybe, and 0% said no.

  • 75% said that their Extension system is currently engaged in programming to address mental health, and 50% said they are currently conducting research related to mental health (13% were not sure).

This data indicates that there is an opportunity to work collaboratively across the region to better address mental health needs through an integrated research and extension approach.

Collectively, from interviews and surveys of Family and Consumer Science Program Leaders, institutional contacts for health and well-being, state health and nutrition professionals, and mental health specialists:

  • Currently, Extension work in the Western Region does not connect food access/insecurity and/or diet to mental health programming and research.

    • Most work is related to suicide awareness and prevention, mental health first aid and the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN).

    • Other work is occurring in the areas of: Opioid prevention, relationship stress management, stress management, financial management and mental health, physical activity, chronic disease management, nutrition and food resource management/food insecurity, food access, produce subscription programs and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Finally, data collected from interviews and surveys on strengths of the Western Region in the areas of nutrition and mental health:

  • Extension’s strengths are in nutrition education. Most (if not all) states have Nutrition Specialists and/or registered dieticians, as well as other professionals extending research-based nutrition education to the community.

  • Two states indicated that they have Mental Health Specialists (Montana and Nevada) and one additional state has Extension faculty with expertise in mental health and wellness (Utah).

  • The Western Region has expertise in program evaluation with the Western Region Evaluation Network (WREN) and several states have a designated Evaluation Specialist.

  • A FRSAN has been established in the Western Region.

  • Western Region states are part of the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN).

  • Western Region faculty in Montana participate in the Rural Families Speak About Resilience multistate research and extension project.

  • Extension also has several cross-campus partnerships that will advance the Network. Some examples include:

    • Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery (Montana)

    • Center on Aging (Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada)

    • School of Medicine (Nevada, Washington, Arizona)

    • School of Nursing (Washington)

    • College of Social Work (Utah)

    • College of Public Health (Oregon, Colorado)

    • Linus Pauling Institute (Oregon)

Taken together, there is both a need and an opportunity to conduct research and expand education related to the role of nutrition, diet and healthy food access on mental health.

The goal of the network is to improve mental health outcomes across the lifespan through addressing diet quality and healthy food access. Healthy food access applies to more than food insecurity, it may include food swamps, food deserts, rural communities or other contextually defined situations where access to affordable, healthy food is limited.

Objectives of the Network are to:

  • Convene a group of Extension and research faculty along with other partners to advance research and education related to the intersection of diet quality and mental health.

  • Increase awareness of the relationship between diet and mental health.

  • Conduct research and education to improve mental health outcomes through addressing diet quality and healthy food access.

  • Develop resources that states and territories can add to their portfolio of mental health efforts either as a stand-alone piece or additive to ongoing efforts.

  • Increase collaboration regionally and enhance fund development efforts.

The Network will be comprised of Extension professionals and research faculty in the Western Region with expertise in youth/human development, socio-emotional health, nutrition and physical activity, mental health and evaluation. The Network will be open for anyone to join but will strive for at least 1-2 Extension or research faculty from each Land Grant University in the region. The Network will solicit membership from other agencies, non-governmental organizations and the broader community.

Objectives of the Development Committee are to:


  1. Recruit a steering committee comprised of 6 research and Extension faculty.
  2. Conduct a literature review on the role of diet quality and food access on mental health.
  3. Develop a theory of change to explicate connections between diet quality, food access, and mental health.
  4. Identify prevention and intervention programs that show improved diet quality is associated with improved mental health.
  5. Apply for a USDA/NIFA AFRI Food & Nutrition Conference Planning Grant.
  6. Form and convene the Network to develop the WERA proposal and a structure for subcommittee work.
  7. Submit a proposal to form an WERA.

Procedures and Activities

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan


Literature Cited


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

Washington State University
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